Lieberman’s latest legislative salvo against entertainment industry waits in wings

Monday, April 2, 2001

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn.

When the Federal Trade Commission released a scathing report on Hollywood marketing practices last September, presidential candidate Al Gore and running mate Joseph Lieberman gave the industry a six-month deadline to either clean up past acts of peddling adult-oriented fare to children or face the regulatory wrath of Washington.

Gore lost his bid for president, but Lieberman, who retained his seat as a senator from Connecticut, continues to promise such legislation even after the self-imposed March 11 deadline.

Dan Gerstein, Lieberman's press secretary, blamed the delay in putting a bill forward partly on the fact that two potential co-sponsors have other pressing items on their agendas at the moment. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is tackling bankruptcy reform while John McCain, R-Ariz., is wrapping up debate on campaign finance.

“We would have liked to introduce this in February, but we've been handicapped with the intricacies of the Senate,” said Gerstein, noting that the “deadline” was the senator's and not a legislative one. “It's more important to get the legislative wording right.”

Lieberman, a longtime watchdog of the entertainment industry, originally sponsored legislation that would mandate a universal ratings program for all entertainment products including movies, television programs, music and video games.

But the Senate never brought the matter up for a vote, despite numerous committee hearings and reports. Some of the reports, including the one from the FTC, found that entertainment executives aggressively and routinely target adult-rated material at children.

But in follow-up letters to the Senate, the commission said the First Amendment significantly restricts the government's ability to punish companies that peddle inappropriate entertainment to children.

The commission suggested that a better solution might be to wait for the entertainment industry to improve self-regulation and then hold it to those standards.

Although the agency can enforce regulations prohibiting “unfair” or “deceptive” marketing, FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky wrote to McCain expressing concern that applying such authority to the entertainment industry raises “a number of significant legal limitations, including substantial and unsettled constitutional questions.”

But Gerstein said Lieberman has crafted a bill that effectively accomplishes the senator's goal of keeping Hollywood accountable but doesn't unconstitutionally regulate content.

“This does nothing to regulate content, and there is no censorship,” Gerstein said in a telephone interview. “The First Amendment doesn't give the entertainment industry license to deceive.”

A spokeswoman for the Motion Picture Association of America says the group knows that Lieberman's bill is waiting in the wings. But she said officials there wouldn't comment on such legislation until after its introduction.

Commenting on the topic last year, MPAA President Jack Valenti said the FTC report clearly showed that “any attempt to charge the movie industry for deceptive advertising of R-rated films would be fatally infected with serious constitutional problems.”

In the meantime, the group implemented a set of guidelines for studios to curtail the marketing of R-rated films to children.

Gerstein said the MPAA's 12-point plan hardly works, calling it vague and unenforceable. The pending bill, he said, would offer real sanctions against entertainment producers who label their work for adults but direct them toward children.

Free-speech advocates still have problems with such a measure.

David Greene, executive director of the First Amendment Project, said he believed it would be difficult, if not impossible, to determine exactly what type of movie or music is inappropriate for children.

“It's very easy to talk about these things in generalities,” Greene said in a telephone interview. “But in reality, these types of expression are not drawn that clear. There are many movies that Sen. Lieberman might say [are] not legitimate for children but there might be some of these movies that (other people say) are good for children.”

Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship said: “They are trying to do something indirectly that they couldn't do directly.”

“My major problem with this has been the senators' threat of regulation as leverage to get Hollywood to change content that is not illegal and presumably there is an audience for,” Bertin said in a telephone interview. “And it would be unconstitutional for members of Congress to regulate that content.”

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